Ruined crops. Dead livestock. More than 10.2 million people in need of urgent relief assistance. Six million children stalked by thirst, hunger and disease. This is the situation in Ethiopia, now facing the worst drought in decades.
Few places more fully bear the costs of this crisis than the parched, rocky Afar region of Ethiopia, where I recently visited two UNICEF-supported projects.
Even before the drought, the 1.7 million people of Afar — the region containing the highest percentage of people living in poverty in Ethiopia — met the daily struggles of life with uncommon resilience…admirable toughness.
On a long, dusty drive over rocky tracks, you see housing that is often a basic structure cobbled together with rocks, sticks and cloth. And the nomadic existence of many groups, while to be respected, ultimately keeps children from the health care, education and protection they need. Child labour, child marriage and FGM/C are all too common. Girls are forced to carry water on their backs for miles. And the region’s under-five mortality rate is considerably higher than the national average.
It is already enormously difficult to supply these nomadic populations with the water, medical care and education they need. The drought makes it more difficult — and more urgent.
The effects of El Niño and the failure of the rainy seasons — which normally bring to life over 80 per cent of Ethiopia’s agricultural yield — have exacerbated the harsh challenges for the people of Afar to raise livestock or grow even the most basic food. The region’s children are disproportionately among the 435,000 children across Ethiopia at risk of severe acute malnutrition. Without a regular source of water, sanitation and disease-preventing hygiene are near-unimaginable luxuries.
But as I returned from Afar moved by the struggles I witnessed, I also returned energized — and inspired — by the innovative efforts of the Government of Ethiopia and UNICEF’s staff members, in partnership with many others, to serve those living such hard lives.
In the remote, pastoralist community of Lubakda Kebele (or village), I visited one of the Ethiopian Government’s 20 Mobile Health and Nutrition Teams, bringing vital health and nutrition services directly to a population “on-the-move.” Each day, on a regular schedule, the team relocates to a new site. I watched team members sitting on the ground providing medical consultations, ante-natal care, immunizations, malaria control, and hygiene services to anxious mothers who had brought their children for care. The team’s efforts will continue filling the gap until a new permanent health care post opens in the area in six months.
In another impoverished community, Musele Kebele, hydrogeological mapping from satellites circling the earth is transforming life in a remote, parched desert area. First NASA and now EUROSTAT satellites are helping pinpoint the best areas to drill for fresh water 200 metres below the surface. Past efforts to find underground water sources were “hit or miss,” with a 30-40 per cent rate of success. Today, three new wells have been drilled with 100 per cent accuracy. The fourth well, when completed, will provide a sustainable water supply for about 17,000 people and their livestock across multiple villages.
This approach is very cost-effective, compared to delivering water by truck. Indeed, every permanent well costs the equivalent of only three deliveries of water by truck.
This is only the beginning. With our partners in the European Union and the governments of Germany, UK and the United States, the government and we are expanding this effort to seven more districts across Afar, distributing water to villages, schools, health centres and cattle troughs.
Projects like this protect not only livestock and livelihoods — but also, most importantly, the lives of the people struggling through this drought. They also offer the possibility of saving lives over the long term, and preparing drought-prone communities to withstand and recover from future droughts. They offer hope for the future.
When I asked a fifteen year old, married mother what she wished her one-year-old child someday to become, I was saddened when she had to pause before answering, as if for the first time considering such a question. She then replied, simply, “Better.”
As our collective efforts give the nomadic people of Afar a new possibility, though not a requirement, to opt for a more settled life, we are also helping them pursue the “better” life that every mother dreams of for her children — and that every person, no matter where she lives, deserves.
Anthony Lake is the Executive Director of UNICEF